“No problem,” Pep Guardiola said somewhat unconvincingly on Tuesday, having delivered the news that John Stones will be sidelined for up to six weeks with a muscular injury. “It’s a challenge. They will do it and do it well because my players are the best. I will create something. It is what it is. Football is not how you handle the good situations. It’s how you handle the bad ones. I am ready for the challenge. I like it, I like to live this situation.”
But Guardiola did not look like a man who enjoys ‘living this situation’, a day before Manchester City’s Champions League campaign begins at Shakhtar Donetsk. When the summer window closed, centre-half was the only position in which his squad was short. With Stones joining Aymeric Laporte on the sidelines for a significant period of time, that deficiency is now badly exposed. The one thing they did not want to happen has happened, barely a month into the season.
Cynics will point out that Stones’s injury breaks up the partnership with Nicolas Otamendi which was widely blamed for Saturday’s 3-2 defeat at Norwich City. Some of that criticism was unfair – particularly on Stones, who was not at fault for any of Norwich’s three goals – but Guardiola has not been convinced by the pair together since they shipped four at Anfield in January last year.
In terms of scheduling, it has not come at the most inconvenient time either. A relatively kind Champions League draw means Stones will miss home games against Dinamo Zagreb and Atalanta after tonight’s opener at Shakhtar Donetsk. Away days at Everton and Crystal Palace are the most pressing concerns on City’s domestic schedule over the next six weeks. Stones can hope to recover in time for the next top-six encounter – a trip to Anfield in early November.
And when looking back at the last two years of success at the Etihad, serious injuries that force Guardiola to deploy players in unfamiliar positions are a common, unifying denominator. It was Fabian Delph in the Centurions campaign, deployed to good effect at left back in Benjamin Mendy’s absence. Last year, Mendy’s fitness issues allowed Oleksandr Zinchenko to blossom in the same role. It is now Fernandinho’s turn to fill in.
But in another sense, the timing is very bad indeed. City’s defence is under greater scrutiny than at any point since Guardiola’s difficult first year in English football. Laporte’s absence deprives them of not only their best defender in a traditional sense, but also the player most adept at starting attacks by bringing the ball out from the back. Stones’s injury, meanwhile, leaves them without their best alternative. The next month or so must now be negotiated carefully.
There is confidence in Fernandinho’s ability to cover at the heart of the backline, as there should be in a player of his experience and consistency. His baseline defensive statistics from last season compare favourably with essentially any player in the Premier League when City’s dominance of possession is taken into account. He has spent the last two years regularly dropping deep to form a three-man defence when City are in possession further up the field. His positional awareness and reading of the game is well-appreciated, his considerable ability in the air less so.
He was always likely to do a turn in defence this season. There is every chance that he helps to pull City through this. But the fact that City were prepared for this does not make it a particularly welcome turn of events. Fernandinho is 34-years-old. He has played more than 11,000 club minutes since Guardiola’s arrival three years ago, an extraordinary number for an ageing player. Injuries began to take their toll at the end of last season. There is a reason why he had to be replaced at the base of midfield. Relying on him in the very last line of defence, which is now a perceived weak spot that opponents will target, could easily backfire.
And perhaps more worryingly still, City have limited scope for reinforcements. The club registered the maximum of 17 non-homegrown players in their Premier League squad this summer, meaning there must be a one-in one-out policy on practically any overseas signing come January. Of those 17 players, only Claudio Bravo can really be considered dispensable. Allowing Leroy Sané to join Bayern Munich free up both a non-homegrown slot and funds for a club which is particularly conscious of complying with Financial Fair Play regulations, but Sané’s own long-term injury complicates matters.
As Guardiola advised journalists last Friday, any January signing looks unlikely. He is going to have to mend and make do, and at least it is not new territory for him or his players. “This team has done it in the past,” he reminded everyone on Tuesday, harking back to those Delph and Zinchenko makeshift solutions, before taking on a more defiant tone.
“When we won the last two seasons seven titles, nobody gave us anything. We won for ourselves and we are going to do it again. The perfect ideal situation does not exist, it’s how you approach these ones.” He is ready for the challenge, he says. It could prove to be a significant, perhaps even season-defining one.
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